Progressives have had a lot of sport recently contrasting conservative attacks on Barack Obama as a vicious law-breaking tyrant in domestic affairs with their simultaneous attacks on him as a weak, trembling figure on the world scene. How could Vladimir Putin fail to notice that Obama has struck so much fear into the hearts of his enemies at home, who are cowering in their homes awaiting assaults from IRS agents and affianced gay people? Hard to say.
But conservative self-contradiction about Obama’s spine reflects a much broader and deeper ambivalence about whether they are winning or losing the great battle for America’s culture and political system.
We have certainly come a long way from the ’70s, when Nixon and Agnew boasted of support from a “Silent Majority,” or the ’80s, when a “Moral Majority” helped Ronald Reagan win two consecutive landslides and also “win” (with an assist from Pope John Paul II) the Cold War. You could argue that conservative self-confidence persisted into the 1990s, when Bill Clinton was accused of winning by “stealing our ideas,” and the long economic boom was credited by the Right to Reagan’s policies. And the “our side’s winning” claim definitely persisted through 2004, when the Iraq “victory” was often treated as a huge transition point in U.S. and world politics and Karl Rove dreamed of a permanent GOP majority.
Since then, however, conservative self-confidence has regularly alternated or even coincided with defeatism and paranoia. There’s always been an undertone of cultural despair in the post-Moral Majority Christian Right, where the legalized-abortion “regime” that has prevailed since Roe v. Wade occasionally tempts conservatives to compare the U.S. to Nazi Germany or the antebellum South. And even in times of conservative political ascendancy, claims that the Judiciary or academic elites were thwarting the achievement of conservative policy goals have been very common.
But at least since 2008, the question of whether conservatives are winning or losing in the battle for dominance of American culture and politics has been confused by internal conservative disagreement as to whether majoritarian or anti-majoritarian values are at stake. Obviously enough, conservatives are bullish on public opinion when they are willing elections, as in 2010, and less bullish when they are losing, as in 2008 and 2012.
But the Tea Party Movement, reflecting a long tradition of conservative anti-majoritarianism, has been a “populist” political insurgency based in large part on the assertion that its agenda of expanded private property rights, religious rights, fetal rights, and taxpayer rights, are constitutional rights no popular majority should be permitted to overturn. And that is the core of the “constitutional conservative” ideology central to the conservative movement and the GOP today, if only because it is the only coherent right-wing ideology in town.
“Constitutional conservatism” makes it possible for conservative political folks to have it every which way. Whether they win or lose elections, they represent the “real Americans” who represent the only legitimate constituency. If they indulge in vote-suppression activities, that’s because they are simply trying to thwart the efforts of the 47% who seek an inherently illegitimate majority. If they still lose, that’s because liberals have bought votes with government benefits, or have benefitted from media bias, or are complicit in a bipartisan conspiracy abetted by RINOs.
The paradox of parallel conservative paranoia and triumphalism has been especially notable this year, when plenary whining about alleged persecution of Christian conservatives and nonprofit groups seeking to hide their donors has coincided with exceptional optimism about the 2014 electoral cycle. The main argument in conservative circles against an abrasive kulturkampf has been the prospect of an electoral majority based on factors of little real concern to “the base” — a sluggish economy and a poorly and slowly implemented health reform law. But it will be very surprising if the kulturkampf doesn’t reemerge in 2016, when real power is on the line.
The question of conservative attitudes towards the America they seem to fear and loath even as they claim super-patriot fidelity may not be resolved anytime soon. When they are winning in the existing system (with a thumb on the scale with money and voter suppression techniques), they will obviously honor it. When they lose, they will probably hew to anti-majoritarianism more than they criticize themselves, other than for nominating RINOs.
But there is one question the ambivalence of conservatives about their popular status does resolve: the enduring popularity on the Right of Sarah Palin. As she exhibited in her CPAC speech over the weekend, no one is capable of pivoting so rapidly from complaints of persecution to boasts of imminent victory for the Cause, sometimes in the same breath. Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson is, in Palin’s account, a victim of the godless liberal media and its vanquisher. And so Palin combines whining and gloating into a message of vengeance that makes yesterday’s losers tomorrow’s invincible winners. And that may be the most satisfying conservative message of all.
Ed Kilgore is the principal blogger for Washington Monthly’s Political Animal blog, Managing Editor of The Democratic Strategist, and a Senior Fellow at theProgressive Policy Institute. Earlier he worked for three governors and a U.S. Senator. He can be followed on Twitter at @ed_kilgore.